Restaurant Review: Geronimo, New Haven
At Geronimo, the action heats up as the sun goes down.
★★ [Very Good]
We’re not at a sidewalk café or on a rooftop, we’re suspended somewhere in between on a wide porch where a monumental Cinco de Mayo festival appears to be in full sway. Tequila flows, margaritas fly by, the night air smells delicious, and over there a cool guy in a black jacket is mashing avocados in a stone mortar, adding this, that and the other, including fresh lime juice he produces on the spot with a silver press and a flick of the wrist. Ola—guacamole.
What planet is this? The view is of Crown Street, New Haven, but what we’re experiencing is a taste of the American Southwest at its magical best, a spicy blend of Navajo, Mexican and Santa Fe influences. Rooted in the land and what grows there—corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, avocados, elk, buffalo—this is bright, bold cooking. Hot, hotter and call the fire department. But at Geronimo where chiles star and the chef knows a jillion ways to use them, heat has more subtle nuances: slow, sudden, smoky, sharp, tingly, seductive, never a dull moment from chili soup to a chili-spiked rice pudding dessert.
But first things first. Geronimo claims to have the largest collection of tequilas on the East coast—350 and counting, plus over 30 mezcals—along with a creative bartender, an international wine list and beers from here to Mexico, Belgium and the Dominican Republic. The restaurant, in fact, exists because co-owners Rob Bolduc and Marc Knight like to travel and along the way became enchanted with the American Southwest and Santa Fe cuisine. They decided to recreate the verve and romance of it in New Haven. Accordingly, Geronimo’s decor suggests the interior of an adobe house and the menu is studded with ingredients and dishes rarely found in New England—Navajo frybread, elk, bison meatballs, chihuahua cheese. Geronimo gets its Hatch green chiles directly from Hatch, New Mexico (the only place they grow), but otherwise sets no geographic limits other than “best of” when it comes to sourcing.
This works especially well with seafood. A lobster enchilada, for example, features tender sweet chunks of lobster meat mixed with roasted corn and diced bell peppers wrapped in a corn tortilla. Drizzled with chipotle crema, it’s served with a small salad of jicama slaw.
A crab quesadilla delivers a surprising amount of jumbo lump crabmeat in the form of a circular tortilla sandwich almost the size of a dinner plate. Filled with more crab than cheese (reversing the usual ratio) and laid out flat, rather than folded, it might be the tastiest crab quesadilla I’ve ever had—including the ones I used to get at a shack at the beach in Vieques. Those were deep-fried and dripping with cheese—but hey, a dip in the surf makes anything taste divine.
No surf here, but the vibe’s the same. People swirl around, meet and greet, a live band begins to play. We eat to the beat and sample the exotic: Elk chili made with Northwest farm-raised elk with red kidney beans, tomato and chorizo sausage. This prizewinning chili is a rare treat because its deep, loamy, hard-to-place flavor is imparted by a hint of cuitlacoche, a deliberately cultivated corn fungus sometimes known as “Mexican truffle.”
A romaine, artichoke and heart-of-palm salad with poblano ranch dressing is okay, but oddly bland. Navajo frybread, on the other hand, is inspired: Native American meets Nuevo Americano, with traditional fried dough topped with ricotta, fig, chorizo, caramelized onions and cilantro.
But the carnivore among us will not be denied and in short order a 12-ounce Black Angus New York strip steak arrives, medium-rare, with mashed yucca, onions, squash and chimayo sauce. For my taste, this red sauce, loaded with chimayo chili powder is too hot and too harsh—but then, fire-eaters call me a wimp. With or without sauce, it’s an excellent steak and perfectly grilled.
Serving all of the above is challenging on a busy night, as I gather most nights are here, but from where we sit (at a high table near the bar, which made the job even harder) every member of Geronimo’s young, attractive staff seems to be moving fast and smiling.
Like everything else at Geronimo, the menu is larger-than-life. There are whole categories of tacos, nachos, chili/soup, quesadillas, tamales, rellenos, burritos, main plates, In the Bun, greens. It would take weeks to sample it all. We have done our best and move on to desserts, which are listed on a separate menu. Très leches cake, which we almost don’t order because it’s gotten so commonplace, turns out to be one of the best versions around. Chocolate polenta cake, which the menu warns is “very decadent,” is indeed irresistibly sinful, with a dense, ultra-chocolaty crust filled with three types of chocolate ganache.
“Sandro’s frybread,” a huge portion of hot fried dough (topped with powdered sugar and strawberry and chocolate sauce) is heavier than the light, crispy little churros we love to eat for breakfast whenever we’re in Spanish-speaking territory. I manage a few bites only and take the rest home. Sweet-tooth advisory: Save room. You’ll need it for Geronimo’s rice pudding with chocolate, tequila-soaked raisins, cinnamon, chili and whipped cream.
Or (dare I suggest?) one of Geronimo’s special “dessert cocktails.” A Chef-Hash-Kish, perhaps, made with hot black coffee, Patrón XO Café and Irish Cream. Why not, we’re in Santa Fe country, and it’s a party.
271 Crown St., New Haven, 203/777-7700 geronimobarandgrill.com
Lunch Monday through Saturday 12 to 4. Dinner Monday through Thursday 4 to 11, Friday and Saturday till midnight, Sunday till 10. Major credit cards except Discover. Price range: appetizers $9 to $17, entrées $16 to $28, desserts $4 to $6.